Monday, 21 April 2014

Postcard from Perth 21

Spare Parts in Merredin/Hachiko

The weekend before Easter I was employed with a fellow-actor on a one-day residency in Merredin with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. Disclaimer: I’m a company associate with Spare Parts. In practice this means I’ve been employed by them twice before: once to write a puppet-play some years ago; and more recently as an actor. As readers of these Postcards might have deduced by now, Perth is a small place, and I’m ‘associated’ one way or another with most of the theatre companies here. Normally I don’t write about shows or projects I’m actually involved with; the Merredin residency is a special case.

Strapped into our little hire car crammed with props (including a giant plaster tea-cup filled with decorative ears of wheat), my companion and I threaded our way out of Fremantle to the Roe Highway, into the grim tangle of roadworks currently being extended through the outer eastern suburbs, and finally headed out onto the Great Eastern Highway through the hills and into the plains beyond.  We were accompanied for much of the way by the famous C.Y. O’Connor pipeline carrying water from the hills to the Kalgoorlie: an emblematic local-historical engineering achievement – or folly, depending on your POV – that symbolizes much about WA’s pioneering spirit and/or provincial petty-mindedness. O’Connor killed himself in 1902 before the scheme was finally completed, after protracted delays and defamatory criticism by local politicians and the press. One of my favourite public artworks in Perth is the bronze statue by Tony Jones of O’Connor riding his horse into the sea at O’Connor Beach just south of Fremantle. Often half-submerged by the tide, and with their heads and shoulders tinged with verdigris, the horse strains out to sea while the rider turns and looks back towards Fremantle Harbour (which O’Connor also designed). I often walk past on the path above the dunes, and occasionally sit on the sand or even swim out there. 

The thick pipeline that runs for over 500ks above ground beside the highway is a little less poetic or inspiring. The landscape on either side is mostly cleared of trees (and blighted by salinity) apart from the occasional salmon gum gleaming orange-pink by the roadside. It’s on trips like this that you really get a sense of Perth’s remoteness from the rest of the nation – and its proximity to the vast desert inland of the continent.

Merredin is a small town of about 3000 people in the central Wheatbelt, which lies between the Perth hills and the goldfields. Two-thirds of the state’s wheat and half its sheep are farmed here. Merredin itself is about 250k’s due east of Perth, or about halfway to Kalgoorlie. The land around produces about 40% of the wheat from the region, and the town handles around a million tonnes a year, stored in unimaginably huge silos just west of town.

We stayed in demountable cabins at the Merredin Caravan Park, dined at the Commercial Hotel on the main street (I couldn’t go past the green chicken curry two nights in a row) and lunched at the excellent local bakery a few doors down. The site for the residency itself was the showgrounds at the recreation centre down the road just north of town.

In reality it was hardly a residency: half a day’s drive and a few hours’ set-up for an all-day installation at the Agricultural Show on the Saturday, and drive home again on the Sunday. The install was for a puppet-show called Farm, which Spare Parts are staging later this year – including a few days in Merredin at the Cummins Theatre  (originally the late-Victorian Tivoli Theatre in Coolgardie before it was dismantled and relocated by rail to Merredin in the 1920s for reasons I couldn’t ascertain or imagine). The last touring show there a few weeks back was the perennial Puppetry of the Penis (a one-night stand); coming up in a month’s time was Tom Burlinson in Simply Sinatra (also one night only). Otherwise it was a long time between drinks at the Cummins Theatre.

Farm is being written by Ian Sinclair and based on stories by local residents and schoolkids; Spare Parts did a two-week research residency in Merredin late last year. The project is partnered by Collgar Wind Farm, about 20ks south-east of town and the biggest wind farm in the state – indeed the southern hemisphere, according to their website. Our mission on this trip was to set up a giant human-body-shaped mound of dirt on trestle tables inside the rec centre, and invite passers-by at the show to choose an object from a collection of junk which we’d brought with us and displayed on two more trestle tables. They would then place the object somewhere on the body-farm, together with a story or memory, which they were invited to write out on a piece of card and attach to the object with a piece of string. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually the mound of dirt turned out to be a few bags of sand when we rocked up at the Two Dogs Hardware Store (unmissable with its two giant inflatable dogs on the roof) on the Friday afternoon. Undaunted, we set off for the showgrounds, set up our tables between two local school stalls, spread out some garbage bags to retain the sand, arranged a length of rope in the outline of a body and filled it the sand. Satisfied with our achievements, we retired to the Commercial Hotel, which featured an enormous (and deserted) dance floor, dominated by a huge music-video screen. As we arrived, a group of locals were arguing over what to play next: ‘Aw, Hainsey’s on the juke box again! What’s the bet he plays “Black Betty”? Hainsey! How about some Shania?’ I decided tonight was not the night to join Hainsey on the dance floor for ‘I Feel Like A Woman’, and wondered what surprises tomorrow might bring.

Against all expectations however the next day went off like the showground fireworks that erupted later that night. By noon our sand-farm was crammed with inventively utilized objects and pithy stories, which we promised to photograph and post on the Spare Parts Facebook page (and some of which I include below).

Overall, I was struck by people’s sense of place, pride and community – kids and elders alike – and my own sense that the land itself seemed to generate stories for those who grew up or still lived there. Encounters with snakes; getting lost; running out of water; dealing with kangaroos; favourite domestic or farm animals, farm tools or machinery; long-term relationships with neighbours, or with parents and grandparents still living on the land, or nearby in town – I couldn’t imagine similar (if any) stories coming so readily to city-dwellers. Conversely, a bunch of stories came from a family of African visitors who’d grown up on a farm in Zimbabwe.

By the end of the day, our body-farm was completely mapped and covered by stories almost to overflowing: tales of the corporeal, so to speak, forming an incorporeal body-double of events (to use the language of Deleuze in his Logic of Sense). Enough material, in fact, for a dozen shows – if not the basis for an annual event – or at least, a virtual spin-off on the internet and a remounted foyer installation for the theatre season. Food for thought, too, about future directions for artistic and community residencies; collaborations between city-based producers and regional presenters; and perhaps the intrinsic relationship between story, place and (in every sense) ‘country’.


Following my trip to Merredin, I went to see the current school holiday season of Hachiko at Spare Parts. Like Farm it’s written by Ian Sinclair and directed by Spare Parts artistic director Philip Mitchell; in fact it’s a remount of a show that was originally staged in 2012, and based on the true story of a dog who faithfully went to Shibuyu train station in Tokyo each day to wait for his master for nine years after the latter had died. The story and staging are beautifully simple, sweet and sad, and elegantly leavened with wit by the writer, director and two performers, Jessica Harlond-Kenny and St John Cowcher – both of whom (like Ian) have emerged through the company’s in-house puppetry training program First Hand, and are also independent artist in their own right (Jess has her own company, and Ian and St John are both members of Wet Weather Ensemble, who produced last year’s standout avant-garde dream-play Bird Boy). Set, props and puppets are all largely made of cardboard, which adds to the delicacy, imaginativeness and hands-on aesthetic of the show.

My reservation (as often with puppetry) was with the overall pace; it’s as if there’s something about the form which continually risks getting bogged down by its own materiality – and conversely lacks sufficient dramatic or narrative events (in the Deleuzian sense of the term). No matter how lively the performers, it just takes so damn long to get those puppets and objects on and off the stage, arrange them in position, animate them and move them around! This wasn’t helped by a wordy if eloquent script, which at times doubled up on the action, or told us things we could have been shown instead. In fact, on the whole I found myself wanting less dialogue and more puppetry. I also struggled at times with Lee Buddle’s charming but generic (and virtually continuous) soundtrack, which didn’t leave the audience (or the performers) much emotional space to interpret or feel things for themselves. Perhaps what seem to me excesses of staging, text and music are deliberately intended to facilitate understanding by younger audiences. I wonder though if streamlining things mightn’t enable them to engage more deeply, as well as allowing for greater dynamics in terms of pace and mood.

Nonetheless, Hachiko is a delightful and moving show, delivered with great artistry; and the performance I saw kept a large audience of young, old and disabled (and even actor-critics) highly diverted and entertained.

Spare Parts is a unique theatre company (at least in Perth) in terms of its specific art-form focus, its in-house training program, its repertoire-approach to remounting work, its breadth of audience, and (not least) its charming if slightly ramshackle home venue (one of the only companies in Perth that has one – and one of the last arts companies left standing in Fremantle). Philip is an artistic director with a strong philosophy about his art-form and its underlying connection with the psychology of emotional intelligence; and Ian Sinclair is a writer and theatre-maker with a unique poetic vision of his own.


This season of Hachiko runs until April 26; Farm has its first public season at Spare Parts from September 29 to October 11.

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